On December 9th I finally did something I’ve wanted to do for a long time: buy an electric car. That’s the day I purchased a Tesla Model S 75.
About 20 years ago I had a chance through my then job at KFI Radio in Los Angeles to drive a Saturn EV-1 electric car for three days. That was an odd looking car, but driving it around town felt like no other car I’d ever driven before. Granted, at that time I’d only ever driven 5 cars, but still. It was a special experience and everywhere I went people asked me about it. But more than that, it was a unique and fun driving experience.
Here I am 20 years older, I’ve driven far many more than four cars in my life and I can honestly say driving the Tesla Model S is like driving no other car and has been the most unique and exhilarating driving experience of my life. Yes, exhilarating. That’s not hyperbole.
Here we are one month later and I’ve already put 2600 miles on the car. Contrast that with my last car where I averaged only 800 miles per month. Clearly I’m enjoying this car! Time to talk about some of my favorite features so far.
The 17″ DISPLAY AKA THE CONTROL CENTER
The 17” touchscreen in the center of the dashboard is a genius design move. I’ve been frustrated by the dashboard design of many cars I test drove. Most automakers put a small screen in the middle of the dash, which includes a non-intuitive interface to go along with it (except for Ford – I like their current interface) and some knobs and buttons on the dash. It’s generally uninspired and pretty ugly.
By essentially giving over the majority of the dashboard to a 17” screen on its side, it’s allowed the graphic and GUI designers an opportunity to customize and update the look and feel of the dash. The current operating system, 8.0, is well designed and fun to explore. I’ve read blog posts from long-time owners who said the upgrade to OS 8.0 felt like they almost got a new car. Usually that new electronic device you buy has a life span of two years or so (not really, but that’s what we’re lead to believe), so it’s nice to know that long-term ownership of the car comes with new surprises to look forward to. In four week’s I’ve already seen three software updates that have wowed me.
This car evolves.
While I know regenerative breaking has existed for a while, how Tesla employs it feels more unique and has changed how I drive around town. When depressing the accelerator the car’s regenerative breaking kicks in, slowing the car down with a bit of force. In doing so, it generates additional power for the batteries. It also saves on brake usage. As a result I’ve adjusted how I drive a bit by using the accelerator more like pilots use an accelerator on airplanes, and have gone almost entire drives without using the brakes other than where complete stops are needed.
THE STEERING WHEEL
Look, this may sound like a little thing, but I enjoy driving and a good steering wheel helps. I really liked how the M series steering wheel felt on my 2009 BMW 135i convertible and wanted to ensure a comparable experience.
The Tesla Model S steering wheel doesn’t disappoint. It has very real heft in your hands and in sport mode the stiffness of the steering feels good with great feedback from the wheels, especially on windy roads. And you’re able to adjust most everything on the car directly from the steering wheel, with quick access to the stereo, your favorite stations, the sunroof and much more.
I’m not sure I love how the horn reacts – yeah, I’m a honker – but that may just be a function of getting the feel of it. It takes a lot of pressure to make it sound. Maybe I should just lay off the horn altogether and let the car drive for me. More on that later.
TRAFFIC ASSIST CRUISE CONTROL
This became active on January 1st along with other Enhanced Autopilot features. I’ve driven a LOT with it already and it’s been invaluable on long drives where the speeds vary between 35-75 MPH.
Variations on this system exist in a variety of cars, but I’m told Tesla’s is unique in that it will operate all the way to a full stop, whereas most others operate only down to 20 MPH. Now that I have a week of driving under my belt with this feature, which includes three road trips, it really does help out with driver fatigue on a long drive.
Using it is simple – you set your top speed, and then you set how far you’d like your car to trail the one in front of you. If there’s no traffic, you’ll cruise along at your set speed. In traffic, the car will reduce it’s speed based on the speed of the car you’re following and keep the distance you set.
On freeways, this has worked very well. On a drive down the 14 from Mojave the other day, traffic went from 80 MPH on down to a complete stop in traffic. I never once put my foot on the brakes or accelerator. It made a long drive very comfortable.
I even tested it on canyon roads, where it performed surprisingly well. I was driving on Mulholland Highway and found myself on a long stretch behind five cars. I set the Traffic Assist Cruise Control to follow at the maximum distance and it performed perfectly. It does tend to brake harder than a human, but that’s to be expected. It’s never too jarring. I did keep an extra safe follow distance in the canyon, but speeds ranged from 20-45 MPH on a canyon road and I never once touched the brake.
I’ve only had one brief odd moment. Traveling around 75 MPH on a wide-open stretch of freeway the car suddenly, and very briefly, hit the brakes and an collision avoidance alarm sounded. I don’t recall seeing anything that could have tripped the sensors, but it all happened very quickly. Again, it was very brief, but another reminder this is an assist – the operator still needs to pay full attention.
When traffic is denser, the cruise control can get confused a bit in curves in the road and react to the car in the lane next to you instead of the one directly in front of you, causing it to suddenly brake. This feature does seem to be improving and I’m seeing far fewer false positive after a week.
When I finally test drove the Tesla in November, I was days away from buying a convertible Jaguar F-Type. I was sold on the F-Type’s sexy styling and incredible performance, but a friend suggested that the Tesla – even without a convertible – might just beat out the Jaguar. In the end, we know it did and the primary reason why is because of the Tesla’s technology, specifically the Enhanced Autopilot suite of features including collision avoidance, the previously discussed Traffic Assist Cruise Control and, what I was most blown away by on my test-drive, Auto-Steer.
The Tesla Model S “refresh” I got includes the 8 camera/10 sensor/radar combo and a brand new piece of software called Enhanced Autopilot. It wasn’t available until January 1st and I learned early on that owners with more than 1000 miles under their belt would be the first to unlock the Enhanced Autopilot features. At 12:15 AM on January 1st, my car said it was time for a software update!
Enhanced Autopilot is currently in beta mode, so it’s a bit limited. It works only at speeds 35 MPH and under and on major freeways. So in order to see how this works, I’ve had to actively look for traffic on the freeway. Who in Los Angeles does that? New Tesla owners, that’s who!
Over the past week I’ve played with all the features of Enhanced Autopilot and I’m seriously impressed. When it was first activated a week ago, I felt the auto-steer tended to wander from left to right a lot more than I would. Since then, auto-steer performance has greatly improved and it’s clear the car is learning. The car stays center in the lane a lot more, especially noticeable in turns. It still wanders a bit, but seems much tighter as time has gone on. In an attempt to stress test the car, I’ve purposely driven with auto-steer active in lanes where other cars are likely to exit and enter my lane and the car has performed without fail.
I’ve utilized this feature in the morning, at night and in the rain and it’s worked flawlessly under all circumstances. The only time I felt it didn’t do well was for a moment tonight, when I was transitioning from the 405 South to the 101 West, which has a very hard right hand turn. The car slowed to an appropriate speed, but didn’t quite follow the lines during the sharpest part of the turn and I had to take over. The software really isn’t meant for full-autonomy yet, so I’m willing to let this slide for now.
I absolutely love this car! Now, who wants to go on a road trip?